Be-Bound Frugal Innovation COP22

Digital Divide: The Human Imperative Can Be A Sustainable Business Opportunity

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It’s now been several years since major players decided to enter the world of connectivity. Today, for example, Google and others are striving for 5G, while Facebook and others are working to get 4G worldwide.

Nevertheless, some of these projects, each seemingly more amazing than the other, have encountered some major challenges, and interruptions. This is the case with Facebook’s, which had the goal of bringing connectivity to the world population in countries lacking the necessary infrastructure, particularly in Africa. Unfortunately, the satellite that was expected to deliver this advanced technology exploded on the ground when the rocket was expected to launch into orbit.

On the road to bringing increased connectivity to more people (4G, 5G, and soon 6G), a legitimate question should be asked: how connected are we today? Connectivity for all should be considered a fundamental right.

We’ve jumped feet first into the digital revolution, radically changing nearly all aspects of our life: work, relationships, economies, industries, and even entire regions. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in Africa, a continent that in many ways is still waiting to see the benefits of the last 3 industrial revolutions: today 40% of Africans are still living with a weak energy supply and only 20% of the continent has access to the Internet.

In fact, even if smartphone adoption were moving at lightning speed, Africa would remain behind the rest of the world in terms of digital platform usage, and notably in terms of lack of infrastructure, and exorbitant cost of broadband for example.

In developed countries, we are embarking on a path of connectivity. 4G and 5G are the trending terms, while the giants of Silicon Valley are betting on fascinating projects to connect the rest of the planet: projects that have been marked by challenges and unwanted interruptions. The digital divide remains a reality.

Meanwhile, Internet has the potential to do for Africa what the rail system did for western economies in the 19th century. Lack of access threatens the future of social life the future of economies, and even democracy in these countries. The 3G/4G networks that allow internet access via a simple smartphone interface, do not sufficiently cover the African continent, or the world. The 2G network, covers 95% of the planet.

Certain businesses have been inspired by the principles of frugal innovation, as defined by Navi Radjou in his book, “Jugaad Innovation”. Renault for example launched Logan in 2004, a low cost vehicle, and then developed a new line of entry-range products which saw phenomenal success under the Dacia brand.

Frugal innovation aims to create significant business opportunities and social value by drastically reducing resources (or energy), money, and time needed to create products. And while pioneering enterprises, like Renault and Accor, have adopted frugal innovation as a good business strategy, the concept has largely been ignored in the mobile industry.

Optimizing networks can immediately contribute to bridging the digital divide. By assuring a mobile internet connection even when there is only a 2G-SmS network available, operators and institutions will have the possibility to cover a much wider geographic area, vaster than the 3G or 4G coverage, and thereby include the estimated 4 Billion people who are digitally excluded (60% of the global population).

Seen from one business perspective, we’re speaking about an incredible opportunity for telco operators who would have an entirely new market opened for them: potentially 4 Billion new customers! At the same time, optimizing networks would create a veritable digital ecosystem where developers and their countries could produce apps and solutions adapted to specific local needs, capable of functioning everywhere and in every circumstance.

This is about doing better with less: making more out of what is readily available. In Europe, in Africa, everywhere, it’s time to embrace frugal innovation in order to bring society the most value, as fast as possible, and at the lowest cost in terms of resources.

Approaching issues of mobile connectivity with a frugal innovation philosophy  is the path that will bring us closer to reaching every single SDG being discussed at COP22. The Digital Divide is the barrier holding developing countries back from economic, environmental, and social opportunities. Mobile connectivity will help developing countries combat climate change, and continue to rise economically. Frugal innovation, by definition, designs holistically, adjusting for climate change, by making the best of existing resources (in direct opposition to the outdated business models based solely on growth). Be-Bound will be in Marrakech to bring our perspective to the table, and drive improvements for ICT to reach the Global Goals and advance climate action.


This article has been modified. It first appeared in French, by Albert Szulman, Be-Bound’s previous CEO, published in Les Echos

Photo Credit: Patrick McManaman



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